The Passion of Artemisia is a fiction based on the life and works of Artemisia Gentileschi, first woman painter to have earned her living with a brush, in seventeenth century Italy.

Artemisia is taught to paint, from a very early age, by her father Orazio. Her father’s friend, Agostino Tassi, who teaches her as well, rapes her repeatedly. Orazio decides to accuse Agostino publicly, forcing her daughter to undergo a long and painful trial, in which she sustains torture and a public vaginal examination, meant to prove or disprove her claims. Artemisia holds her grounds despite the pain and pressures but her father eventually betrays her by dropping the charges against Tassi.

Artemisia demands reparation from her father. Since her rape and its public knowledge renders her quite unmarriageable, her father makes amends by finding her a husband, a painter from Florence. After a swift wedding ceremony, Artemisia goes to Florence, but soon her marriage is put to the test: though Pietro Stiattesi tolerates that she spends her days painting, he begins resenting her when her career takes off. Jealous, he cannot forgive her for being accepted at the Accademia (she is the first woman to enter it) before him. But as Artemisia will learn later, her marriage was doomed from the start…

The birth of her daughter Palmira will give her hope that she might form her successor, and instill in her daughter the technique, and mostly the passion, for painting. Unfortunately, her daughter shows no inclination towards painting and Artemisia will have to eventually accept her daughter’s different ambitions…

We will follow Artemisia’s work from rejection, even humiliation, to success, as her art conquers some men of influence, such as Cosimo de Medici. Painting baroque feminine figures of power, such as Judith slaying Holofernes, Artemisia manages to impose her own feminist vision. Of course, her art is influenced by the violence she suffered when she was a young woman. From Rome to Florence, and then to Genoa, Venice and Naples, Artemisia will paint for different patrons. Friend of Galileo, Artemisia maintains a correspondence with him and the astronomer shares his revolutionary discoveries with her.

Susan Vreeland has chosen to focus Artemisia’s life on her relationships with her father, her daughter and her husband, and to explain how her art was shaped by her experiences and her feelings. The result is very satisfying: a first-person narrative allows us to enter the mind of the artist, to share her own vision of life and art. Vreeland manages to fit Artemisia’s feminism in seventeenth century standards, though I found the character of Graziela, the Sister who stands as Artemisia’s surrogate mother, giving her advice and directions for her life, very modern, almost anachronistic…

Rating: 4/5